Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Do Scarborough councillors want a subway or just political cover?

By: Matt Elliott Metro, Metro Canada Published on Wed May 08 2013

On Tuesday, a full two-thirds of those in attendance at a meeting of Toronto City Council voted to reverse a bid by Mayor Rob Ford to delay debate on new taxes, tolls and fees to fund transit expansion in the GTA. With TTC chair Karen Stintz and left-leaning councillors spending the last couple of weeks beating the drum and rounding up votes, the result was expected, though a few populist-skewing councillors and some convenient absences from the council chamber made the vote closer than it should have been.

But no matter. The vote means that council will finally have its debate on how to fund transit expansion — which is, you know, the necessary first step toward actually building an expanded transit system.

But there's still the matter of the Scarborough subway. According to some narratives, support for the subway — a Bloor-Danforth extension that would replace the Scarborough RT — was the lynchpin for gaining the votes of some east-end councillors to debate new revenues for transit. Which could very well mean that there's now enough support on council for a motion that would request that the provincial government re-open the recently-signed master agreement on transit and tinker (again) with Toronto's transit future.

But here's the question I have: does anyone on council actually expect the transit plan to change? Do Scarborough councillors really think they have a shot at building a subway extension?

I'm not sure they do.

Let's look at the evidence. City Council, of course, doesn't have any real authority to unilaterally change transit plans. All they can do is ask. And Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency, has been surprisingly clear with its position: they're not looking to change anything and just want to move forward with the current plans. Premier Kathleen Wynne also seems focused on moving forward with current plans without further changes. Even Coun. Glenn De Baeremaeker, who has helped lead the charge on the latest Scarborough subway movement, penned an open letter last week with a final paragraph that gave the impression that he was almost resigned to failure on the issue.

Meanwhile, the case for switching the Scarborough LRT plan to a subway extension has grown weaker as the days have worn on. Transit blogger Steve Munro suggested the cost of a conversion could be double the $500 million figure floated by subway supporters. And the TTC has thrown water on the notion that a subway solution would help avoid a transit shutdown in Scarborough during construction — apparently maintaining the rickety old Scarborough RT for another few years isn't likely to be either simple or cheap.

All this makes me wonder if the game from these councillors isn't real transit advocacy but instead just political cover. Maybe the idea behind this latest push isn't to get a subway, but rather to provide defence from the perpetual re-election campaign of Rob Ford, who maintains a great deal of popularity in Scarborough. It's a safe bet that Ford will try to capitalize on the inevitable challenges associated with large-scale transit construction, blaming any traffic congestion or business closures on the choice of LRT as opposed to just common, unfortunate outcomes of building large, expensive things. When that happens, this last push for a subway will give local councillors a measure of plausible deniability.

It's looking a lot like a “Don't blame me — I voted for the subway!” strategy.

Too cynical? Maybe. But there's got to be some reason why these councillors are pushing so hard for a subway that doesn't seem likely to go anywhere.

This post was originally published at on 2013-05-08T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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